In 1990, my deepest wish was to be one of Madonna’s backup dancers on her Blond Ambition Tour. Seeing Truth or Dare only deepened my desire. I wore sleeveless black spandex turtlenecks that zipped up the middle. I wore booty shorts with Doc Martens in broad daylight. I vogued at the drop of a cocktail napkin.
I never made the cut, but 25 years later, the lives of those dancers are laid bare in the new documentary Strike a Pose.
I caught up with two of its stars, dancers Kevin Stea and Carlton Wilborn, to get their take on the documentary and the life I was supposed to lead.
Alec Mapa: The movie is not what I expected. The tour is just the jumping off point, but the meat of the movie is a deeper exploration of the dancers and the experiences you had after the tour was completed.
Carlton Wilborn: For all intents and purposes, that’s what it is. And what’s been so amazing is that after all these years there’s still a relevance to us and who we were. I keep getting asked the question did you know the impact that the Blond Ambition tour or the film Truth or Dare had? And the truth is, no. But the fact that the film Strike a Pose has legs of its own based on who were as people, tells me we did have an impact.
I lived in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. After mourning so many deaths it seemed as if gay culture went quiet for a while. My experience was that Madonna salvaged all that was joyful about gay culture and exposed it to the mainstream. Did you ever see that YouTube video of the little gay boy voguing in 1991? To me, that makes the cultural impact of that tour plain and simple.
Kevin Stea: That tour made people feel free. It made them feel as if they had a tribe—that if you were bullied or excluded, somewhere, someplace there existed a place where it was perfectly safe to be yourself. The magic of that is that voguing was the only gay dance form, a dance created by and for gay men, but now everybody could do it.
Men, women, and children could all explore that part of themselves in safety—in public! And that was radical, because to be LGBT in the late ’80s and early ’90s was dangerous. We were so surprised when we heard the cops wanted to arrest us in Toronto. To us, exploring sexuality and being curious was playful, but to the world it was shocking. We were just having fun and it seemed so silly that people were upset.
How do you think it’s different now?
Stea: We’ve experienced so much more freedom the past 25 years, that we’re experiencing a backlash. People who feel their beliefs are being challenged and threatened act out in violent ways. And the reason they’re acting out is because they didn’t have to in the past. Society did it for them.
So much of the tour was about sexual freedom and openness but several dancers in the cast were carrying some pretty deep secrets.
Wilborn: Oh definitely. I was HIV diagnosed in 1985, so by the time I got to the tour in 1990, I was dealing with a whole lot of shame, a whole lot of hiding. I literally didn’t even tell my family until 14 years later.
It was wild to realize I had this weird double-headed experience—one that was fully charged [by] makeshift confidence, and another, which was the real shit, where I had no confidence at all. And trying to find my way while everything in the media in 1985, every billboard, radio ad, or political statement was chastising people like me? I was dealing with that and the diagnosis, so it was tricky.
Stea: It was a completely different time. I wasn’t out on the tour. I knew I was gay, but I wasn’t hiding it. I just didn’t think I could call myself a gay man because I’d never been in a relationship with a man. That I could be in that space where I was questioning, surrounded by the vanguard of sex and sexual freedom and have that be OK? That was the most progressive thing at the time.
Do you think Blond Ambition changed all other touring shows?
Stea: The tour raised the bar for all other tours because it was the first time a show combined theatricality with music and dance. Most tours had spectacle, but they never had story.
Wilborn: Madonna also gave the dancers the complete freedom to be ourselves. She used to tell me “Give me more of you,” because that’s what she wanted to see onstage. We were given the space to be ourselves.
Stea: Her character is really underrated. When stars give dancers permission to shine, it shows. [Strike a Pose co-director] Reijer Zwaan watched Truth or Dare as a kid and he said it gave him the freedom to be more himself.
Wilborn: His mom took him to see the movie when he was 11 years old.
So his mom made him gay.
Stea: [Laughs] Exactly. But years later he realized the impact we had on him and he wondered what happened to us. Unbeknownst to us, he started to stalk us all on social media. He was talking about the idea of the film to [Strike a Pose co-director] Ester Gould and she said she had had the same experience watching Truth or Dare as a straight woman.
Wilborn: The biggest takeaway from Strike A Pose is a message that goes beyond the artist, beyond the gay, beyond any of that. Which is, embrace whatever your truth is. At the end of the day, whoever you are, you’ll be able to see some version of yourself through the experience that we have been having. Whether it’s straight or gay, whatever the color is, whatever the flavor is, whatever your swag is, that’s supposed to be your is.
Strike A Pose premieres April 6 at 8/7c on Logo.